As we cautiously step into 2022 the nation continues to face some uncertainty as a result of the Omicron variant spreading across the globe.

Over the Christmas break some may have had time to reflect on the challenging year they have lived through and be feeling anxiety about more restrictions and the threat to livelihoods. It is helpful to remind ourselves and those around us that it really is OK not to be OK.

We know that heightened emotional states serve to protect us in times of danger. When a situation makes us feel sad, angry or panicked, biological and physiological changes occur that propel us into action. We may fight back, flee or freeze. These sensations are uncomfortable, so we naturally want to avoid them and may attempt to cope by engaging with unhelpful actions such as overeating, drinking, avoiding or pretending everything is ok.

Unfortunately, when we suppress this emotional discomfort, we can unintentionally amplify these feelings so they become much larger and more overwhelming. Clinically, we refer to this as the Struggle Switch*.

When the struggle switch is ‘ON’, we fall into a vicious cycle where physiological symptoms triggered by high levels of anxiety are misinterpreted and considered more threatening, thus leading to a further increase in anxiety. We can be harsh, telling ourselves we shouldn’t feel the way we do which then adds to more anxiety and consequently more physical symptoms. Our lives can very quickly feel like they are unravelling and we are losing control.

The good news is we can learn to turn the struggle switch to ‘OFF’. By recognising that WE ARE NOT OUR EMOTIONS we can begin to learn to live with uncomfortable feelings when they show up.

The following steps can help this process:

a) Firstly, we need to understand our emotional responses. Asking questions such as, “how did I react when difficult thoughts or feelings showed up for me today?”. Then think about the negative impact and costs of these behaviours to us personally and those around us.

b) Secondly, we can reduce the tension caused by these emotions by giving them a name, labelling and describing them. Mindfulness practice can be a helpful and non-judgemental means of observing and exploring emotions.

c) Next, remind yourself that our emotions, be they joyful or distressing, are transient and ever changing. We can disentangle ourselves from unpleasant feelings if we can let them pass through just like clouds floating above and out of sight.

d) Finally, we can develop ‘expansion’, a practice where we open up and make room for difficult emotions. This builds our resilience when unpleasant emotions resurface, allowing them to flow through us so we can focus on more meaningful activities.

We must also remember that self-compassion goes a long way when we face adversity. As we would offer empathy and kindness to a friend, we would do well to reassure ourselves that there is no shame in how we are feeling, it is OK not to be OK.

* Dr Russ Harris, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT)

Ready to take the next step? Please get in touch to have a chat about how we can help. We’d love to hear from you!